February 4, 2012: Algeria continues to clear over 10,000 half-century-old land mines a month. Over 1.1 million mines have been found and removed or destroyed in the last five years. This is all because of the several million mines planted by France, in rural border areas, during the war with Algerian rebels in the late 50s and early 1960s. This Algerian mine clearing effort went into high gear after 2007, when France finally turned over maps of the border minefields. Because of this, in the last five years, over a million of these mines have been removed.
There is still a way to go. France laid nearly 11 million mines between 1954 and 1962. Since then, the Algerian military has found and removed about three-quarters of them, mainly in areas where people lived. But when the French left in 1962 they did not leave behind the maps of where their mines were planted. Five years ago, the French finally agreed to provide these maps. This enabled Algerian engineers to greatly increase the number of mines they removed per month, especially in the rural areas where there had been no civilians killed (which made it clear where a mine field was). Before that, the Algerian de-miners basically went blind into rural areas where livestock, and sometimes children, had triggered one of these old mines. Sometimes kids or adults would see the tell-tale signs of a minefield and report it. But each report brought the engineers into a murky situation. Without the French maps the engineers never knew how many mines they had to clear and there were never enough mine clearing resources to carefully check the large border areas.
France provided Algeria with maps showing where three million French mines were planted in these remote border areas. These mines were part of a mine field system found along 1,200 kilometers of the Tunisian and Moroccan borders and were meant to make it more difficult for Algerian rebels moving in and out of the country. Each year, shepherds and others moving along the border areas are killed or injured by the mines, as are their animals. The mines in more traveled areas have been removed over the decades. But now, with the maps, the mines in remote areas can be cleared as well.
The mine maps were always an irritant in relations between the two countries, as France never offered to provide them before. But in the last six years, the French army has been seeking opportunities to improve its relationship with Algeria. Since the 1950s, the French army has been particularly hated by Algerians because of the rough tactics used during the late 1950s and early 1960s, before France finally left and Algeria became independent. But over the decades, the hatred has died down.
Over the last few years, the Algerians have removed over 90 percent of the mines shown in the French maps. Many mines may never be found because they have moved, as the sand or earth they were buried in moved due to wind and water action. Some of these lost mines are now so deep in the ground that animals, or people, walking by will not set them off. But these mines will remain lethal for decades more. Such was the case with World War I munitions that didn't go off when used nearly a century ago. Shells, grenades, and aircraft bombs still explode when a farmer, or construction crew, digs them up. Fortunately, most of the remaining French mines are in very remote areas of Algeria. There, they are probably a danger only to future archeologists, seeking traces of ancient civilizations.